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Progress amid community carnage.

By Ann Irwin.

Development and change at local authority level continue apace. We have had the formation of the Local Community Development Committees (LCDC), as part of the largely unpopular process of alignment of community development and local development with local authorities, which many believe undermines local participatory structures. We have had the very unpopular process of tendering for the new Social Inclusion Community Activation Programme (SICAP), as if the achievement of social inclusion is something that can be tendered out to bidders.

Now we have more planning with Local Economic and Community Plans (LECP) to be prepared by each LCDC in all local authority areas. These could be better. There is no doubt that these new LECPs have the potential to provide a roadmap for the economic and community development of the local authority area. However, the flaws of the past need to be addressed if there is to be meaningful engagement from all sectors and there is no evidence of any evaluation of the past that might lead to this.

The Local Economic and Community Plan will be the primary strategy guiding the development of each local authority area and is to be an important implementation vehicle for relevant national and regional policy. The plans are to comprise an economic element, the development of which is primarily the responsibility of the local authority and its Economic Strategic Policy Committee (SPC), and a community element, the development of which is primarily the responsibility of the Local and Community Development Committee (LCDC).

Each local authority will establish an Advisory Steering Committee with representatives of the LCDC, the Economic SPC, local authority staff and others deemed to have a role to play. The Committee will devise a draft socio-economic statement for the city or county with high-level goals for the plan. This must be based on socio-economic evidence to be gathered by the local authority.

While this sounds promising, experience suggests that it is the local authority, and not the democratically selected LCDC or even the Advisory Steering Committee, which is making most of the key decisions. This is leading to considerable frustration amongst community and voluntary sector representatives.

Local Economic and Community Plan guidelines stress the importance of consultation with stakeholders, and that public consultation must take into account the importance of designing consultation processes to match the needs of different stakeholders across the economic and community sectors. However, there is no State budget assigned for the development of the LECP and each local authority will have to fund the development of the Plan from internal resources.

Some local authorities will have the resources and capacity to undertake meaningful consultation, others will not. One of the keys to the success of the LECP will be the capacity to develop buy-in from a range of stakeholders, including communities that will be the focus for actions and strategies. The consultation phase of the Plan is crucial for this. Whether local authorities have the capacity to achieve this form of consultation is yet to be proven but many community sector representatives are not hopeful of any meaningful exercise in participatory consultation and planning.

The LECPs will replace the strategies devised by the former City/County Development Boards. In most cases, these were ambitious roadmaps for the economic, social and cultural development of local authority areas. Communities and community organisations committed a lot of time and energy to the development of these strategies. However, in most areas, no proper review or evaluation was undertaken of what actions were or were not implemented. According to many community sector representatives who were directly involved in these bodies, their biggest weakness was in failing to ensure that local resources were focused on achieving the strategies agreed.

The funds available to Local Community Development Committees are small in comparison to the budgets of the key statutory and other agencies involved. The success of the LECPs depends on convincing these agencies to focus their funding on the implementation of actions and strategies agreed. It is not clear whether the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has managed to persuade other Government departments to commit their funding to the LECP strategies agreed.

Notwithstanding the argument that the local authority is not best placed to manage and co-ordinate local development and community development, the LECPs have potential to harness new and innovative ideas for the development of local areas, bring together social and economic development so that those in the most marginalised communities will benefit, and embed sustainability, equality and human rights in all development strategies. This needs goodwill, capacity and willingness to do the job
properly. •